The long-stalled move of a US military base in Okinawa looked set to overcome a huge hurdle this week after a meeting yesterday between the island’s pugnacious governor and Japan’s prime minister.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged an unheralded cash bonanza for the archipelago, in the form of stimulus spending that commentators say could help persuade Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima to drop his longstanding opposition to construction of a new airbase.
“You presented surprisingly impressive proposals. I express my heartfelt appreciation as the representative of Okinawa’s 1.4 million people,” the governor told Abe.
Abe told Nakaima he would set aside at least ￥300 billion (US$2.9 billion) for Okinawa’s economic stimulus budget every year until fiscal 2021.
The package of proposals also includes halting the operations of the Futenma airbase within five years and the early return of the land.
The local politician said he would make a formal decision by tomorrow on whether to approve the government’s plan to relocate the airbase on the coast.
“I think we will have a good New Year’s Day,” he told reporters, looking set to give it his blessing.
Abe told the governor: “The government will do anything possible.”
The prime minister also said Tokyo and Washington had reached agreement on negotiating an environmental stewardship framework which would supplement the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
“The SOFA has not been revised once, over more than 50 years. The negotiation has not even taken place. [Tokyo and Washington] agreed to start the talks,” he said. “We are resolved to reach tangible results.”
Nakaima’s approval would mark a breakthrough in Japan-US efforts to follow through on an original 1996 agreement to shut the Futenma airbase, which is in a densely populated urban area.
The US reaffirmed in 2006 that it would resite the base on the coast, but the move has been stymied by opposition throughout Okinawa, which feels overburdened by its outsize share of the US military presence in Japan.
“Reducing the burden [of the US military presence] on Okinawa is one of the most significant challenges for the government, while it is extremely important for the US-Japan alliance,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
Campaigners criticize the choice of the planned new site, in Nago, saying it is home to a rare sea mammal called the dugong and the landfill required would badly affect its habitat.